Naming and Violence in Bleak House
As Vladimir Nabokov points out,(69) Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, Bleak House consists of three main themes: first, the court of Chancery which revolves around the never-ending suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce; second, miserable children and their relationships with their parents, most of whom are frauds or freaks; third, mystery, that is to say, a romantic tangle of trails followed by amateur detectives which finally lead to the secret about Lady Dedlock.
These three themes have something in common: hidden violence. There are absurd institutions, by which cases are protracted endlessly, a vast amount of money and energy is wasted, and victims’ lives are ruined. Furthermore, parents’ violence against children is also depicted. Finally, there is violence emanating from thousands of pairs of eyes which are eager to uncover a scandal. We will examine how characters’ names are treated, which is certainly one of the keys to understanding various types of violence.
(1) Miss Flite and her way of naming birds
First, let us turn to Miss Flite whose life was ruined by a prolonged lawsuit and her subsequent madness. It is notable that Miss Flite gives her birds allegorical names: “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.” (253) According to J. Hillis Miller, “the victims of Chancery” are represented by “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life,” “Chancery’s effects,” “Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death,” and “Chancery’s qualities” or deadly tools, “Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.”(189) Though these birds have nothing to do with a lawsuit, they are named after Chancery and categorized. Such absurd classifications through naming are often found in relationships between the powerful and the powerless such as parents and children, guardians and wards.
(2) Violence of naming in parent-child relationships
Let us examine exploiter-exploited relationships between parents and their children through naming. It is notable that Caddy comes from “tea caddy,” because Esther’s friend, Caddy is exploited as a secretary by her mother, Mrs. Jellyby. Mrs. Jellyby devotes herself to philanthropic work in Africa and doesn’t care about her children. Caddy angrily says: “I am only pen and ink to her.” (240) It means Caddy is classified as a tool or something useful and deprived of her identity.
Next, let us consider Skimpole’s daughters, Arethusa, Laura and Kitty. They are called by nicknames: “my Beauty daughter” “my Sentiment daughter” “my Comedy daughter.” Thus Skimpole treats his daughters as if they were his “playthings” (654), classifying them according to his taste: “His [Skimpole’s ] pictorial tastes were consulted, I[Esther] observed, in their respective styles of wearing their hair; the Beauty daughter being in the classic manner; the Sentiment daughter luxuriant and flowing; and the Comedy daughter in the arch style, with a good deal of sprightly forehead, and vivacious little curls dotted about the corners of her eyes. They were dressed to correspond, though in a most untidy and negligent way.” (654-655) In this way, their hairstyle and dresses are also decided according to Skimpole’s taste and they are categorized as toys or playthings.
Let us turn to Esther’s nicknames, by which a certain power relationship between Esther and her Guardian, Mr. Jarndyce can be detected. After Esther’s arrival at Bleak House and her first conference with her guardian, she begins to be called by various nicknames: “This was the beginning of my being called Old Woman, and Little Old Woman, and Cobweb, and Mrs Shipton, and Mother Hubbard, and Dame Durden, and so many names of the sort, that my own name soon became quite lost among them.” (148) According to William Axton, Esther’s nicknames “deprive Esther of a measure of identity and status as an individual” and “reduce her to the relative anonymity of a housekeeper.” (159) Axton also points out that Esther’s nicknames uniformly “refers to the witches, hags, comic old dames, and widows of folklore, nursery rhyme, and street song.” (159-160)
To give an example, “Little Old Woman” is referred to in the Child’s Rhyme which is quoted in the novel: “Little old woman, and whither so high?” “To sweep the cobwebs out of the sky.” (148) These phrases represent Esther’s role as a housekeeper who brings cheerfulness and order to the Bleak House. To cite another example, “Dame Durden” is the name of the old woman who looks after orphans and animals instead of mothers. These nicknames thus give Esther several roles as a mother and a competent housekeeper.
(3) Names and their Empty Formality
Let us examine names of politicians: “Coodle, Doodle, Poodle, Quoodle, Buffy, Cuffy, Duffy, Guffy.” They are formed by adding “oodle” to “C, D, P, Qu” and “uffy” to “B, C, D, G.” This is reminiscent of “the history of the Apple Pie” (146) which Mr. Jarndyce quotes criticizing the court of Chancery: “A was an apple-pie;/ B bit it,/ C cut it,/ D dealt it,/ E eat it,/ F fought for it,/ G got it,/ I inspected it,/ J jumped for it,/ K kept it,/ L longed for it,/ M mounted for it, / N nodded at it,….” Here, the first letter of each word is arranged according to alphabetical order, though there is no necessity to do so. As each letter is replaceable for another, politicians’ names show “each may replace any of the others” as J. Hillis Miller points out. (191) Politics is thus criticized as lapsing into empty officialdom.
Next, let us pay attention to the relation between a greedy lawyer Vholes and his victim Richard. Vholes calls Richard “Mr. C” instead of “Mr. Carstone” which implies that Vholes regards Richard as if he were the third letter of the alphabet. The letter C can be replaced for A, B, D or any other letter. There is no necessity for Vholes that Richard should be what he is including his character, life, history. Richard only has to be a good source of funds for him. After all, Richard grows exhausted by a prolonged lawsuit and dies. It is as if Vholes rubbed out the letter C with India rubber.
(4) Naming and Lady Dedlock’s Secret
We will examine the disclosure of Lady Dedlock’s secret and its relation to her name as well as that of her daughter and her ex-lover. Esther’s father, Hawdon uses a pseudonym, “Nemo,” which means “no one” in Latin. When Hawdon was young, he got engaged to a woman named Honoria and later, Hawdon was mistakenly reported to be dead. Honoria gets married to Sir Leicester and becomes Lady Dedlock. Thus Hawdon’s name is officially defunct and their illegitimate daughter, Esther also has to go by “Summerson,” though her real name is Hawdon filling her with shame and a confused identity.
The fact that Esther’s father’s name is Hawdon and Lady Dedlock has an illegitimate child comes to light. Lady Dedlock is driven into a difficult situation: “So! All is broken down. Her name is in these many mouths, her husband knows his wrongs, her shame will be punished － may be spreading while she thinks about it －…(815) It is notable that “name” rhymes with “shame,” which implies “name” is closely related to “shame.” Lady Dedlock escapes from the Dedlock house and dies by Hawdon’s grave. It is ironic that the first name of Lady Dedlock, “Honoria” contains “H, O, N, O, R,” as Lady Dedlock kills herself to preserve her honor. After this incident, Sir Leicester becomes invalided and the Dedlock Family is ruined. It turns out that the name “Dedlock” signifies its tragic fate.
(5) Names of People living in Tom-all-Alone’s
Let us consider the relationship between naming and people in a blighted slum, Tom-all-Alone’s. People there are not guaranteed a minimum standard of health care and if somebody suffers from a fever, dozens of people are infected and die. Their hygiene problems are neglected by the government and this slum is compared to “the infernal gulf.”(364) It is noteworthy that they call one another by nicknames: “As few people are known in Tom-all-Alone’s by any Christian sign, there is much reference to Mr Snagsby whether he means Carrots, or the Colonel, or Gallows, or Young Chisel, or Terrier Tip, or Lanky, or the Brick. (365) This symbolizes that people in Tom-all-Alone’s are excluded from any other class in society and abandoned by powerful institutions.
An example of deprivation of identity by use of nicknames is the street sweeper, Jo, who is called “Toughy” or “the Tough Subject” which means his real name does not have any significance socially. In addition, the last letter “e” is erased and his name is spelled as not “Joe” but “Jo.” This symbolizes Jo is treated as a non-person by society.
Let us turn to the name of the slum, “Tom-all-Alone’s.” “Tom” is reminiscent of Tom Jarndyce who goes mad because of a prolonged lawsuit and commits suicide. “Tom” also reminds us of an orphan, Tom, the son of a dead bailiff, Coavinses. In this way, “Tom” symbolizes the victims of absurd institutions as well as poor, forlorn children. Furthermore, “all-Alone’s” represents the miserable, isolated circumstances of the slum dwellers. That is to say, each person is deprived of identity as well as name, while Tom-all-Alone’s has its substance which denounces the miserable situation, calling for its improvement.
The relationship between naming and hidden violence has been examined, especially in parent-child, guardian-ward relations. By giving names as well as nicknames, the powerful could force the powerless to assume the role related to their names and deprive them of their identity and freedom. Furthermore, some institutions and politicians, who only have names without substance, chase their own profit. It also turned out that names are associated with power, honour, and status. Esther’s father, Nemo’s real name “Hawdon” is erased and he becomes a pariah. Finally, let us turn to the catechism in which Mr. Bagnet examines his son with extreme accuracy. Here there are two questions: “What is your name? and Who gave you that name?” (722) Then, Mr. Bagnet fails in the exact precision of his memory, substituting for number three the question: “And how do you like that name?” (722) The third one is notable because it questions the way parents name their children: it asks whether children like their own names which parents selfishly give at their own convenience.
Axton, William. “Esther’s Nicknames: A Study in Relevance,” Dickensian 62:3 (1966)
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1971 )
Miller, J. Hillis. “Interpretation in Dickens’s Bleak House” in Victorian Subjects (Durham: Durham University Press, 1991)
Nabokov, Vladimir. “Bleak House,” in Lectures on Literature ed. Fredson Bowers (New York and London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1980 )